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Eggshell Relationships

Living with the emotionally unstable personality

No one calls them "eggshell relationships," but that is what they turn into. Relationships where you have to tread lightly—each day you wake up you are figuratively having to walk on eggshells because your partner or someone you know behaves or acts all too frequently with a constellation of traits that are simply toxic. So toxic that you have to be ever so careful around them, lest they lash out at you. They do so because they are emotionally unstable.

Over the years and in doing research for my book Dangerous Personalities, I talked to many of the victims that either lived with or were in a relationship with an emotionally unstable individual. Here are some of the unfiltered words they used to describe what these toxic individuals were like:

angry, bitter, chaotic, clingy, complainer, confusing, controlling, critical, cruel, dangerous, deceptive, delusional, dehumanizing, demanding, demeaning, denigrating, desperate, destructive, depressive, disconnected, disorganized, disquieting, draining, drama-queen, dysfunctional, emotional, envious, erratic, exasperating, explosive, fear-inducing, frightening, frustrated, frustrating, hysterical, imbalanced, impossible, impulsive, inappropriate, incomplete, inconsistent, irrational, irritable, irritating, malevolent, malignant, masochistic, mean, mental, mercurial, miserable, moody, morbid, nasty, perplexing, rage-filled, resentful, sarcastic, scary, seething, seesaw, suffocating, suicidal, tantrums, tempestuous, tense, threatening, tiresome, tormented, tormentor, tornado, train-wreck, tumultuous, turbulent, uncaring, undependable, unforgiving, unhappy, unhinged, unpredictable, unreasonable, unreliable, unstable, untrusting, vengeful, vindictive, violent, volatile, wound-up.*

While the above list is not a diagnostic tool, and it should not be used that way, it does give us insight, from those who have suffered, into what life with an emotionally unstable person is like and what they experience. One word or one behavior does not make for a toxic personality—everyone has a bad day—but where a person consistently demonstrates a large cluster of behaviors reflected by this list, we are most likely looking at someone who is emotionally unstable, and they need help.

Obviously, no one has all those characteristics, at least I hope not. But it is jaw-dropping how many people have experienced living with someone that consistently demonstrates a variety of them. Life with someone like this is, in the words of one victim, “a living hell.”

What the victims described to me was a life where one minute things are OK and the next minute there is an explosive outburst. One minute everything seems fine and the next minute, with the slightest of provocations, there is an acrimonious verbal assault that lasts for hours, leaving you scared, bewildered, disparaged, even questioning your own sanity. These individuals are not just mercurial, they are arbitrary and capricious in how they deal with others and so you never feel like you can relax around them—turmoil seems to always be either around the corner, a small incident or one misspoken word away. You have to tread lightly, as if on eggshells, just to survive.

Out of love, caring, or necessity (in the case of children) people stay in these relationships thinking that their next act of kindness or their next precious gift will make things better. It never does. No amount of goodness or contriteness will ever get them to change.

The person who is forced to change is the victim, who will have to learn to either “take it,” as one victim told me, or to become so risk-averse that they can never speak their mind nor enjoy being in the same room with this emotionally unstable personality. Why people remain in these relationships is often complex or a total mystery, but one thing is certain: The unstable personality needs help. And you can't personally fix them.

The only thing you can do is try to get them some professional help, but even then that may backfire. The emotionally unstable often can’t see there is anything wrong with them, they minimize their actions, or they say you are the problem, not them, and then they lash out at you. Nevertheless, they need help. Professional help from someone who is skilled in dealing with such individuals. You also may need help from a competent clinician to understand that none of this is your fault.

If you know or are in a relationship with someone like this you do need to be careful that you are not traumatized. If there is violence, and sometimes there is, you need to seek help or even shelter.

Beyond the above-listed words from the victims, the following may apply to the emotionally unstable personality or how they make you feel:*

  1. Displays of intense anger and outbursts are very disproportionate to the circumstances or the event.
  2. Since knowing or entering into a relationship with this person, you have become less happy, less confident, or less sure of yourself.
  3. The relationship is best described as a “roller coaster” of highs and lows.
  4. Is unable to appreciate the consequences of his hurtful statements or behavior and how it may affect others, including family members or society.
  5. Behaves in ways that at times are inappropriate or outrageous.
  6. With some frequency, seems to fall apart or gets angry under the slightest stress.
  7. Arguments that should last a few minutes may go on for hours or days with no effort to ameliorate or end them.
  8. The smallest of instances causes him/her to become angry and to lash out.
  9. There are recurrent instances of fighting, arguing, or physical confrontations.
  10. Verbal altercations or arguments seem to be a way of life even with total strangers or even service providers such as a doctor.
  11. You can’t seem to relax, chill out, or “stand down” around this person.
  12. Those who are closest (e.g., you, family, children, spouses) routinely have to “check” to see what the current “mood” is.
  13. Is described by others as “unpredictable” or “unstable,” or is known to throw things or destroy property.
  14. Claims to forgive but never does: wrongs, grievances, or injustices are remembered specifically for use in future arguments.
  15. Has a “short fuse” and frustration level is very low.
  16. Seems incapable of consistent empathy, caring, or love and yet demands it from you or others.
  17. You have felt reluctant to speak or to take action out of fear of this person’s reactions toward you or that they may hurt themselves.
  18. You feel trapped by this person in some way.
  19. Uses humiliation as a form of punishment or to put you down in order to elevate their self-esteem.
  20. Often lashes out not just with anger but with rage. At times frighteningly so.

If many of the aforementioned words above resonate with you, they may be an emotionally unstable personality. While such individuals will try to make it seem like everything is your fault or that you have no worth, it is they in fact who are severely flawed. There may be many reasons for why they are that way; but that in no way justifies how they treat you or how they make you feel. Again, they need professional help and that is not your job, nor is it your job to be the human chew-toy or punching bag of an emotionally unstable personality. Your job is to insulate yourself and, if need be, your children from this kind of personality before they do greater harm. No matter what others may tell you, remember this: “You have no social obligation, ever, to be victimized.”

*From Chapter 2 of Dangerous Personalities (Rodale).

Copyright © 2016, Joe Navarro

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